In Sam Fuller's first feature, [i]I Shot Jesse James, [/i]one cowardly act permeates the soiled fabric of one man's simple life. Based on the terrible myths circling about the grinning death skull of Jesse James and a story by Homer Croy, this version portrays Bob Ford as even more simpering and pathetic than just about every other screen treatment.
John Ireland plays Bob Ford with a perpetual look of worry and self-debasement plastered on his face. It's a strange interpretation as it paints Bob as a lowly miscreant who deserved his sorry fate. Casey Affleck in the far superior [i]The Asssassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [/i]gives Bob a sweet melancholy and a lasting touch of dignity. In that film Bob is a sympathetic figure and unlike this one, not entirely loathesome. It isn't giving anything away to say that Bob dies at the hands of his sweetheart's new (and much bolder) lover, John Kelley (Preston Foster). The film just portrays him as an emotional gimp with no real integrity and a lack of understanding why everyone treats him like a pariah.
Jesse James (Reed Hadley) is something of a one dimensional character. He lacks the steely gaze of other interpretations and fails to come off as a full fledged character. He's rather expendable in this film as he's only a prop to set up the fated maneuverings of Bob Ford as he stumbles through the latter years of his sorry life. Then there is the love interest, Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton), a singer who Bob intends to marry if he can ever earn enough money to purchase her a ring. Britton is likable in this role but lacks the cool, disarming affectations that have made previous women in this tale so appealing. She's attractive and somewhat engaging but her role is essentially superfluous to the main story, the necessity for male bonding in cattleland after the denoument of the civil war. Bob has no one to turn to and his life slowly begins to unravel. He is unable to convince any man to stand by him as he grinds gradually into powder.
Preston Foster is a monument of a man and the most solid thing in this rather forgettable film. His presence is formidable as he literally stands in the way between Bob and the woman he loves and who he imagines loves him. Foster gives Kelley a dominating intensity that doesn't waver as Bob prances about trying anything whatsoever to prove he's a man of honour who deserves the hand of Cynthy. However, Bob lacks what Kelley has in spades: a clean conscience and an unyielding entitlement to precisely what he wants out of life. Indeed, Bob retains a fiercesome guilt throughout the latter half of the film. He would do anything to undue those terrible events which lead to him putting a bullet in the back of Jesse's head. As in other versions Bob takes his show on the road and nightly reenacts the sad events that led to Jesse's death. He becomes famous in his own right but the attention is hollow. He is unable to get the actual, physical event out of his mind no matter how many times he tries to exorcise it.
Overall, this is a credible first film but does not possess enough energy to make it more than passably watchable. The performances are all a bit wooden and it's impossible to have much sympathy for any of the characters. Preston Foster comes off best due entirely to the solidity of his physical presence. The camera work by Ernest Miller is fairly good but doesn't do anything particularly memorable. Ultimately, it's a building block and something worth expanding on.